Embracing the Edge: The Indispensable Role of SAFe Practice Consultants in Driving Change


Eduardo Alvim

5/1/20245 min read

First off, I must confess—the title of my article might seem a bit narrow, focusing solely on SAFe Practice Consultants (SPCs). But in truth? The insights here apply broadly to anyone in a change agent role within an organization. So, why the emphasis on SPCs? Well, it's a world I know well. I spend my days teaching Implementing SAFe classes, helping aspiring SPCs become top-tier professionals. And there’s one point I stress as we dive into the third day of training:

- SPCs can’t afford to fear losing their jobs!

Choosing SPCs as my focus was somewhat circumstantial, yet the lessons apply whether you’re an Agile Coach, Scrum Master, Release Train Engineer, or any other pivotal change-driving role.

The Uncomfortable Truth of Change

Change is inherently unsettling. As SPCs, our primary role is to steer organizations through the choppy waters of transformation. That tired excuse—“We have always done it this way”—should ring in our ears not just as a challenge to overcome, but as a dire need for evolution. Hearing these words is our cue; it signifies that stagnation has set in, and it’s our duty to eradicate it.

This mission is anything but straightforward. Shaking the status quo will inevitably ruffle feathers, provoke resistance, and even stir up corporate politics. Leaders may feel threatened, departments may resist, and at times, the entire system might seem aligned against change. If we falter here, driven by the fear of backlash, real transformation becomes unattainable. Instead, we risk becoming mere background noise, sufficient only to check off 'Agile' on a performance review without sparking any genuine, lasting change.

I vividly recall a telling incident at a company I hadn’t been with for long. I was brought in to assist with a pivotal project poised to redirect a struggling department. After observing, participating, and exchanging ideas, I reached a tough conclusion: it wouldn’t work. Not due to technology or strategy, but because of the prevailing leadership attitude. Applying the same fearless advice I give others, I voiced my concerns, which quickly escalated through the ranks—from Senior Manager to Director, to VP, and back down. Contrary to my expectations of being dismissed, my hierarchical superiors supported me. Years later, I learned that the then-director had admitted I was right. Although they succeeded in delivering a successful product, it came at the cost of their people—a truly pyrrhic victory.

Lessons from the Trenches

My journey hasn’t always been backed by support. I’ve faced sanctions and even threats, despite proving my points. Here are some memorable admonitions I’ve received (If you are reading this, you know who you are 😉:

  • "You don’t need to know everything, after all, you’re just an IC (Individual Contributor).

  • "I don't need to decide anything behind closed doors, after all, I'm the boss!"

  • "Let’s not forget one thing here: I’m the boss!"

  • "I have put my a** on the line for you (which wasn’t true, btw), so you better make it work this way or you’re out!"

  • "If no one has told you yet that you’re close to being the worst at your job, I’ll tell you now."

But one comment truly topped them all, a real 'hors-concours' as my French friends would say:

- "Forget about this 'Agile' thing. It’s just a fad that will fade away, and nobody will remember it existed. You’d better find something else to do." - said by my direct manager in 2009.

These experiences, as harsh as they were, shaped me into who I am today. They taught me valuable lessons and prepared me to share these insights with you.

Navigating Your Path as a Change Agent

The system has always been resistant to change agents. To navigate your journey more smoothly than mine, here are some tips and strategies:

  • The CEO Is a Colleague: Yes, they hold a high office, but at the end of the day, the CEO is your colleague, tasked with the welfare of the company just as you are.

  • Your True Boss: You don’t work just for your manager; your real bosses are the company’s clients and the organization itself. Your efforts should be aligned with their needs and expectations.

  • Elevate Your Dialogue: Forget the jargon. Your discussions shouldn’t hinge solely on methodologies, retrospectives or Scrum. Adapt your language to resonate with your audience, focusing on business outcomes rather than processes (whatever they are).

  • Know the Goals: Understand what the leadership aims to achieve and the corporate goals. Frame your initiatives in a way that aligns with these business objectives.

  • Agile Is a Means, Not an End: Remember, Agile is a tool to achieve broader goals. Don’t be rigidly dogmatic—be adaptable.

Change, especially within rigid structures, is challenging but not insurmountable. With courage and the right approach, you can make a significant impact. Let’s lead not by fear, but by example.

Agile as a Problem-Solving Tool

The Agile mindset truly shines when it’s used as a tool to address business and customer issues, especially in complex environments. If used merely as a procedural checklist, it will fail to inspire or bring about substantive change. It’s crucial, therefore, for SPCs to broaden their knowledge base beyond Agile. Understanding disciplines like finance, strategy, and product development will not only enhance your credibility but also enable you to discuss solutions in a language that resonates with stakeholders.

Confronting and Overcoming Fear

Fear of annual reviews, one-on-one sessions with managers, or feedback meetings can be daunting. Yet, as agents of change, we must reassess our stance if such fears dominate our actions. Change, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. It challenges the status quo and disrupts equilibrium. If we find ourselves dreading these aspects of our job, it might be time to rethink our role and our approach.

When faced with a resistant system, remember, you have options:

  • Search for Alternatives: Always look for different ways to implement change

  • Understand the Resistance: Dig deep to find why certain proposals are met with resistance.

  • Be Prepared to Walk Away: If the environment is consistently hostile to change, and you believe your influence is minimal, it might be time to move on.

  • Embrace Change: Remember, there is always another opportunity around the corner. Don’t fear the end of a job; focus on the new beginnings it can lead to.

Being a SAFe Practice Consultant, or any other change agent, is not just about adhering to Agile principles; it's about becoming a fundamental element in the wheel of organizational change. It requires courage, adaptability, and a persistent commitment to growth—not just for ourselves but for the entire organization. With humour as our companion and resilience as our guide, let's continue to challenge the familiar, make the comfortable a bit uneasy, and steer our ships through the uncharted waters of transformation. Let this be our legacy: not that we feared the wave, but that we became the wave.